Atlas Lion : Characteristics, Habitat and Population

Atlas Lion -

Atlas Lion : Characteristics, Habitat and Population

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This Atlas Lion was a great victim of gladiators, and he was also Caesar's lion. It was the lion of the Atlas Mountains 🦁that was nicknamed the king of animals and not the lion of Africa. In any case, thanks to its size, this feline was considered the most powerful of the felines.

1) Atlas Lion History.

The Atlas Lion (Panthera leo leo), also known as the Barbary Lion or Lion of Nubia, is a sub-species of lion, now extinct in the wild. It is characterized by a mane that is much more voluminous than that of its African cousins, very dark or even black and reaching to the middle of its belly.

Altas Lion photo.

Altas Lion photo.

Unlike other subspecies of lions, the Atlas lion does not live in groups of more than two or three adult members. The male therefore also participates in the hunt. Living mainly in the mountains of the Atlas Mountains , these lions are more robust and much more massive than other subspecies of lions, easily reaching 440 to 620lbs. The scientific name Panthera leo leo now refers to the African Lion.

The Romans used Barbary lions in their amphitheatres for gladiatorial fights. In the Middle Ages, the lions kept in the menagerie of the Tower of London were Barbary lions, evidenced by DNA tests on the two well-preserved skulls in the tower in 1937. Today there are still some lions of this breed, notably in Morocco, Germany and France. Morocco is concentrating a lot on its reproduction and its reintroduction to the wild, it is a magnificent species which is in danger.

Anecdote : The last lion would have been seen in 1956.

How did his researchers come to this conclusion ? They simply sifted through hundreds of testimonials from local North African populations who had reported seeing Atlas lions near their homes over the past two centuries. The very first testimonies thus date back to before 1839. At that time, people had seen lions in northern Morocco, near Melilla and Tangier. Researchers also collected photos and conducted interviews with people, particularly in Algeria, who explained that they had seen the lion when they were children or who told them stories about the lions they heard as children.

The last time people saw a living Atlas lion was in 1956 in the Setif region of Algeria. Several people on a bus passed by a forest and all saw an animal that looked like a lion. The forest was then destroyed during the Algerian War ⚔️. Researchers believe that when the forest disappeared, so did the lions. However, since the Atlas lion's habitat extended from Morocco to Egypt, they believe that other lions could have lived hidden in the wild a decade later, without anyone noticing them, before becoming extinct for good around 1965.

Male Atlas lion.

Male Atlas lion.

Is Atlas Lion still existing ?

Scientists also wanted to know if there are still "pure" Atlas lions today. Several zoos around the world claim to have some in their animal collection. Experts doubt it, pointing out that these are mostly hybrid species, Atlas lions crossed with lions from sub-Saharan Africa.

As for the Rabat zoo, which claims to have 35 pure Atlas lions, straight descended from the lions kept preciously in the royal fawn forest, experts say that this is possible. However, to be 100% sure, genetic tests would have to be carried out and the DNA 🧬of Rabat felines would have to be compared to Atlas lion bones and skins carefully preserved in museums. The problem is that these tests are, on the one hand, extremely expensive. And on the other hand, the bones and skins preserved are more than 140 years old, which could lead to unreliable results. However, in 2005, the first genetic tests were carried out on 5 of these Rabat lions. The results concluded that they were not true descendants of the Atlas lions.

Males and females would meet during the breeding season. The record for gestation in captivity is about 110 days. Up to 6 cubs can be born with more common litters of 3-4 pups. Cubs are usually very dark in colour with rosettes and weigh about 1.75 kg at birth. The cubs are usually very dark in colour with rosettes. They open their eyes around day 6 and start walking at 13 days of age. Males show interest in females around 24-30 months, but do not breed until they are 3 years old and older.

It was in the Roman Empire that the Barbary lion population was reduced to small numbers for the first time. The ancient Romans imported lions from North Africa for use in the games at the Colosseum in Rome and other arenas. With the advent of the European hunter in the last century, the remaining number of Barbary lions fell. Guides in the mountains of Tunisia and Morocco allowed Europeans to hunt lions for sport and museum collections or capture them alive for zoos. Many of them had become tireless lion hunters. In Algeria, more than 200 Barbary Lions were killed between 1873 and 1883. Lions disappeared from the Moroccan coast in the mid 1800s. In Morocco, some lions survived until the 20th century and finally ceased to exist in the 1940s.

Lion Atlas in cavern.

Lion Atlas in cavern.

Hunting undoubtedly contributed to the extinction of the Barbary Lion, but the ecological changes induced by culture seem to have been the main cause. Forests have been degraded by grazing cattle, as well as some of the lions' food sources, such as deer and gazelles 🌳. The last free-ranging specimen was shot in 1922 in Morocco. The last remaining Atlas lions in Morocco owe their survival ... to their captivity in zoos. A sad fate for this feline that once climbed Mount Toubkal. Twice, reintroduction programs were to be launched in Morocco to better preserve the survival of the species, but they never really got off the ground. The Barbary lion is considered "extinct in the wild".

Atlas Lions in captivity.

Although the species is considered extinct in the wild, a few specimens, about 90 (mainly descendants of the lions of the Royal Menagerie of Rabat in Morocco) are still kept in some zoological parks, such as those of Rabat where 35 specimens remain (the Rabat Zoological Garden holds the most Atlas lions in the world), or those of the Port Lympne Wild Animal Park in the United Kingdom, of Madrid, of the Zoological Park of Sables-d'Olonne... All these last lions of the Atlas could be "hybrids" counting perhaps lions of Africa (sub-Saharan) among their ancestors.

A possible reintroduction of the Atlas Lions ?

The Moroccan government had plans to reintroduce the last captive specimens into the wild, but this project, which was difficult to carry out, was abandoned due to human occupation. However, various petitions, particularly online on the Internet, are being put in place in an attempt to revive this project.

It is not easy to get more recent news on the reintroduction of the species. In July 2003, the birth of lion cubs from the Moroccan strain was celebrated at the Amnéville zoo, in direct relation with the project. However, it is quite likely that this idea will never come to fruition 🌿. However, since it is still relevant and illustrates the problem of reintroductions decided after the destruction of a species, which is not without reminding us of the situation of our own large predators, it seems interesting to propose this article which is part of the problem of animal conservation.

Barbary Lion photo.

Barbary Lion photo.

The case had already been raised in 2000 by the Moroccan Ministry of Water and Forests, which wanted to create a protected area as a future place for the reintroduction of this mythical beast. At first glance, the project seems interesting and the intention is commendable.

The last specimen was, in fact, slaughtered in 1922 in Morocco. It was a much sought-after trophy, which made it a victim of poaching, although it had already died out in Tunisia and Algeria a few years earlier. However, specimens have been saved thanks to the royal fawn of Hassan II and there are currently about fifty lions distributed in various zoos, of which a little more than half lived in the zoological park of Témara, in the suburbs of Barat. This park was built through a partnership between the Moroccan and British governments and is also supported by a British NGO and scientists from Oxford.

Future of the Atlas Lion.

This reintroduction is expected to take about ten years and will involve several phases of work. A protected area of 10,000 hectares has been delimited in a densely populated region and will have to be fenced off. It will be necessary to reintroduce the game of predilection of the big fawn, mouflons, wild boars, monkeys and gazelles 🦌. At the same time, Oxford scientists will have the task of selecting the purest broodstock in order to start a captive breeding programme. Finally, a couple or two will be released into the protected area and will need to be monitored.

One of the stated aims of the Moroccan government is to benefit from the economic spin-offs of this project. It is also likely to benefit from European subsidies. Indeed, this programme should be a great success with eco-tourism enthusiasts.

However, several factors need to be taken into account. First of all, the local population does not seem to be enthusiastic about the project, as the reputation for the ferocity of the animal is a cause for concern. It is also feared that poaching will resume unless the reserve is well monitored. It also needs to be seen what system will be put in place to regulate the population of the animals, especially if they are to live in a defined area. Will births be controlled? Or, as in some African parks, will selective shooting or hunting permits be part of the proposed solutions ?

Barbary Lion.

Barbary Lion.

Atlas Lion and Morocco.

All the same, it should be noted that Morocco does not enjoy a good reputation in terms of environmental protection. It should be remembered that in the space of a century, several animal and plant species have disappeared with total indifference. For example, the Nile crocodile became extinct in the 1930s, while in the 1950s the death knell was sounded for the ostrich, the oryx and the addax. At present, the panther should be listed as extinct since no tangible proof of its presence could be reported, the hyena and cheetah are on probation, as are the caracal, sand cat, fennec and jackal. How then to believe that this country is ready to reintroduce an animal that farmers contributed to its disappearance.

Certainly, the total disappearance of the Atlas lion 🦁would be a further tragedy for biodiversity and species conservation. In any case, it seems that the reintroduction of the lion in Morocco is not idyllic. It would be interesting to draw a parallel with our large carnivores, the bear and the wolf in particular, which arouse the same mistrust among French breeders and encounter the same obstacles in the field. Should a reintroduction programme necessarily depend on economic profitability at the national level, and in what context ? If the programme succeeds, what will be the future of the Atlas Lion ?

Ben - Lion Republic writer.


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